Shabbat Nachamu-Parshat Vaetchanan

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel St Petersburg

July 29, 2023

A flower from Pearlstone, at the IJS Clergy retreat

Thursday was the darkest day on the Jewish calendar.  Wednesday night we gathered in the chapel to read Megillat Eicha by candlelight.  We heard the pain, the suffering, the crying out of our people after the destruction of Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, the pain of loss and destruction did not happen only once in Jewish history.  The Temple was destroyed twice and exile has been as much a part of the Jewish narrative as the beauty of a renewed Jewish State in the land of Israel.  The last few weeks in Israel have been contentious, with significant portions of the population protesting against legislation to reshape the role of the judiciary and the government.  The next few weeks will be telling as to what the future holds.  We pray for the wellbeing of democracy in the Jewish state.  Even as turmoil in the world remains, our Torah and Haftorah this week lift us up.  They offer us hope, consolation, and the reminder that we are capable of renewal.

If you were to get nothing else from our Torah and tradition, I pray that you appreciate the radicalism that is telling us “WE CAN CHANGE.”  We may think that we return each Rosh Hashanah with the same hopes and dreams, the same failures and problems, yet Nachamu and Veetchanan teach us that we are capable of so much more.  We can make a difference in the world AND in our own lives.  The haftorah calls out Nachamu, Nachamu Ami, Comfort, comfort my people.  It tells us that we are loved, that the world will change for the better.  As we look around the world today, that reminder is very welcome!

If it is possible, our Torah portion may be even more powerful.  As Moses reminds the people of their responsibilities before they can enter the Promised Land, we hear both the Aseret Hadibrot and the Shema.  We have the foundations for a moral and just society--whether Jewish or not--in the Ten Commandments.  In the Shema, we have a reminder of the unity of God and of the Jewish people’s unique relationship with God.  In one parsha we have the universal and the particular, a balance we all may struggle with on a regular basis.  

Devarim Rabbah 2:35 is a beautiful Midrash of Jacob and his sons explaining why we add Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto Leolam Vaed quietly after saying Shema each time.

דָּבָר אַחֵר, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל. מֵהֵיכָן זָכוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לִקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע, מִשָּׁעָה שֶׁנָּטָה יַעֲקֹב לְמִיתָה קָרָא לְכָל הַשְּׁבָטִים וְאָמַר לָהֶן שֶׁמָּא מִשֶּׁאֲנִי נִפְטַר מִן הָעוֹלָם אַתֶּם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לֵאלוֹהַּ אַחֵר, מִנַּיִן, שֶׁכָּךְ כְּתִיב (בראשית מט, ב): הִקָּבְצוּ וְשִׁמְעוּ בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב וגו', מַהוּ (בראשית מט, ב): 

וְשִׁמְעוּ אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲבִיכֶם, אָמַר לָהֶן, אֵל יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲבִיכֶם הוּא. 

אָמְרוּ לוֹ, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד, 

וְהוּא אוֹמֵר בִּלְחִישָׁה בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. 

אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי וּמַה יִּשְׂרָאֵל אוֹמְרִים עַכְשָׁו, שְׁמַע אָבִינוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹתוֹ הַדָּבָר שֶׁצִּוִּיתָנוּ נוֹהֵג בָּנוּ ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד.


Jacob is on his deathbed and he worries that after he dies his children will abandon Judaism living with material success in Egypt (anyone else have that worry?)

As he is offering his blessings to them, he reminds them of God’s blessings.

They say, listen up our father Jacob Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad

Meaning, Dad, we know that God is our God and God is One.

And he cries out with relief, Baruch Shem Kavod, Blessed is the name of God forever and ever.

Rabbi Levi adds that they acknowledge the mitzvot, too.

(my loose translation)

Yesterday I posted a brief meditation about Shema.  If we write out the name of God in Hebrew, Y H V H, it is 4 letters, but 6 strokes of the pen.  There are six words in Shema, so each word reflects part of the name of God.  As such we acknowledge God in each breath as we say Shema.  I ask you, what would our worlds be like if we could acknowledge God’s presence in each breath throughout the day?

The Perpetual Prayer of the Soul, Rav Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook.

Rav Kook (1865-1935) was the first chief rabbi of the Yishuv in pre-State Israel. This passage stands at the beginning of his commentary on the Siddur, Olat Ra'ayah vol.1, p. 11:

We can only pray the way prayer is supposed to be when we recognize that in fact the soul is always praying. While the soul soars and yearns for its Beloved without stop, it is actually only at the time of active prayer that the perpetual prayer of the soul reveals itself actively, outwardly. This is prayer's pleasure and joy, its glory and beauty. It is like a rose, opening its elegant petals towards the dew, or turning toward the rays of the sun as they shine over it with its light. Therefore, “Were it only that one would pray the entire day long” (Berachot 21a).

עולת ראיה

אין התפלה באה כתקונה כי־אם מתוך המחשבה שבאמת הנשמה היא תמיד מתפללת. הלא היא עפה ומתרפקת על דודה בלא שום הפסק כלל, אלא שבשעת התפלה המעשית הרי התפלה הנשמתית התדירית היא מתגלה בפעל. וזהו עידונה ועינוגה, הדרה ותפארתה של התפלה, שהיא מתדמה לשושנה הפותחת את עליה הנאים לקראת הטל או נכח קרני השמש המופיעים עליה באורה, ולכן "הלוואי שיתפלל אדם כל היום כולו".

(From IJS clergy study)

I think the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, with whom I have been studying for the last six months for this beautiful text from Rav Kook.  As we say the Shema tonight and each day forward, let us remember that our souls are always praying.  When we pray, we are sharing our deepest voices--if we only open our hearts to do so!

Shabbat Shalom!